Aesthetics in Flux: A Conversation with Peter Chung

“The dream to awaken our world…” – Trevor Goodchild in Æon Flux

 How to introduce Peter Chung in an ever so brief preface to an interview? He is obviously the masterful talent which areated Æon Flux, as well as significant creative force behind Rugrats, Reign the Conqueror, The Animatrix, and numerous other projects, and yet that statement alone fails to capture him for me. As a youth watching MTV in the early nineties (yes, well before someone of my age should have even been allowed to do so) Peter’s work was one a small but significant handful of programming coming out of that channel which elicited such a primal response in me. It was beautiful to look at, esoteric, and intellectually stimulating. It is the kind of work which seduces the viewer and demands of him repeated viewing. Now, well over 20 years since I first encountered it, Peter Chung’s work still stands as an exemplary expression to the possibilities of artistic expression in mass media.

 In an epic two hour telephone conversation, Peter and I managed to talk about issues related to aesthetics, film, art history, the philosophy of mind and language, and any number of other topics before the two of us managed to exhaust each other.

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Steven A. Michalkow: There are many ways one might describe your work. The one I like best is that which sees your work as an intricate series of visual and narrative puzzles. How intentional is this? I know you are often loath to provide detailed accounts of what any particular piece of your work “means” in any concrete level. How critical is that level of viewer interaction with your art, even if the puzzles may not be concretely resolvable?

Peter Chung: Well, I do have an answer for this. It goes back to the idea that all filmmakers, maybe all people involved in producing fiction and especially I think with animators, always try to find some way to justify what they enjoy doing. A lot of people come to animation just because they enjoy looking at animation or doing it. But then you are faced with the problem of “well, ok, how do I justify why I am doing this?” And people justify it in different ways. One way is to say “I’m producing entertainment.” I don’t personally like that word as it is so subjective. Usually what they mean is “escapism.” The other justification was the idea of using your animation or art to deliver some kind of moral message. The thing is I found that neither of those possible justifications really satisfied me. So in thinking about what is it that I get from the works that I enjoy, I realized that it was a way of thinking. It was a process rather than some kind of nugget of truth or some kind of answer to “what does life mean” or anything like that…which I don’t think an artist has any kind of authority to be able to pronounce in the first place.

I do find that when I am watching the films or reading the books that I enjoy my mind starts to get evoked into a thought process that is different…it takes you out of your ordinary, mundane way of thinking. It is kind of a cliché but it is mind altering…it expands your consciousness … and that is why I think that I am more interested in the process of thinking that gets evoked through looking at my work than providing any kind of answers. If you are involved in a process of trying to figure out what is happening, what you are witnessing on the screen, then your mind is encouraged to go to places it wouldn’t ordinarily go to, and I am satisfied with that. That is really as much as I can hope to do for a viewer.

Right. What’s interesting about that from my perspective, and something I share, is that half of the battle is creating some form of exercise, where there is an active engagement on the part of the viewer with regard to the work. And I think what often happens in this dichotomy between escapism and didacticism, is a debate in relation to the question “what is art for?” I think a lot of people who express anxiety over escapism can easily make the trek to the other pitfall in seeing art as for the sake of learning a lesson or for the sake of changing the world or something. I guess I don’t understand (or at least understand and don’t approve of) taking that logical leap…that art is therefore necessarily going to change something. I agree that it could, but I guess I feel putting that demand on art is too aggressive.

Well, I think that a lot of people regard making art as a frivolous activity or a luxury, and really it isn’t. There is a recent book called The Literary Animal that’s a collection of contributions from people like E.O. Wilson and David Sloane Wilson, and Stephen Pinker wrote an interesting review of it. There are a lot of studies showing that storytelling and fiction have always been with us. Throughout evolution, in whatever the form it takes, be it telling stories or painting pictures or performing, storytelling has been a vital part of culture. And it precedes things like farming and money. And Pinker talks about how it enables or facilitates empathy. You know he wrote a whole book about the reduction of violence over history, and that more literate societies tend to be less violent towards each other…and being able to identify with the way other people think and live enables you to empathize with them and see them as people like yourself. So it is a big factor in being able to maintain social cohesion. But what I wanted to say though is that it may be difficult to point to one particular film or one particular work of fiction and say “well that is going to change the world.” But I would say that the aggregate effect does change the world. You may not point to one particular work of fiction but I think that the consumption of literature or films definitely helps shape cultural attitudes. You know when I was growing up, one of the most popular genres were westerns, and most westerns were basically fighting Indians and a lot of those movies you just couldn’t make any more in today’s climate. And that has definitely been moved by a political awareness shaped by pop culture.

It’s funny you should say that. Just earlier today I had on in the background Billy Wilder’s “The Seven Year Itch” and there is a beginning moment where they have a farcical scene which is supposed to set up the condition of modern man’s seven year itch phenomenon in New York by going back to the point in time on Manhattan island where the wives of the natives have left the village and all the remaining men chasing the one remaining girl into the teepee. I thought, in the way you mentioned it, that yes, it would be impossible to conceive of a film depicting that now, and weirdly dates that film more so than his other work.

Yeah, so I don’t necessarily see me or any one artist standing on top of a pedestal and changing the world from the soapbox, but we are pulling together, and I think it does pull consciousness towards something more enlightened.

I actually want to explore a little deeper this idea of the collective effect of the arts that you are beginning to elaborate on here. I think what is particularly interesting to explore about this is how this collective effect manifests itself in terms of influence on the individual artist, in particular that artists who, like you, has a goal of trying to get his audience to think differently, or achieve something which shifts consciousness. Conceivably you can enter this paradox where the influence affects the stories you want to tell, but if you want to do something new you may need to shed that influence. How have you managed to negotiate in your mind being influenced by certain antecedents while simultaneously driving your work towards an effort to get your viewers to think and see things differently? In attempting to create something new, do you push your influences away or look deeper into them?

Well, for me actually, the more important kind of influences are negative ones. So I’m very motivated when I see work that bothers me in some way. What it does is inspire me to try and think of ways of doing it better or…well…I think this is what drives a lot of artists even if they may not talk about it that way. I’m much less strident about these kinds of questions these days than I used to be. As you get older you just become more forgiving I think. What I try to do, in all honesty, is be very fair to everything and not to approach anything with any kind of preconceived idea like “well this filmmaker who made this is not somebody whose work I like so I’ll go in having an idea about it.” I try to approach every piece of work on its own terms as much as possible, and it’s very difficult sometimes to convey that because I try to find what’s good in everything that I see because I think that everything that people have made usually has some point of merit to it even though it might not be the thing that was necessarily intended by or motivating the artist.

For example, I’m not a big fan of Disney films as a style of filmmaking but I can certainly recognize a lot of the merits of the classic Disney animation – the attention to craft and the audiences’ need to get absorbed into the content as opposed to admiring the craft, and I think that that is a very important value that took me a long time to come to understand. Many of the best works are ones in which you don’t recognize it as a great work because the creativity or the process that went into it is invisible. I mean it does such a good job of immersing you into a particular world or a particular person’s experience that it just feels like “yes, well that just feels like naturally the way it should be or is supposed to be.” But it takes a great deal of effort to create something like that out of scratch. This is a difficult question to answer because I’m influenced by different things in different ways, and I always try to look for whatever I can learn from whatever kind of piece of art it is, regardless of what its intention might have been. I usually find that there is something valuable I can find in it whether it has to do with technique or whether it is something completely unintentional or unintended by the artist.

Oh yeah, I’m a fan of saying that ignoring authorial intentionality has its benefits. You’ve mentioned a few things that have been on my mind as well. In terms of the negative influence I was reminded of something Robert Altman said which went something along the lines of “I don’t know who my influences are because generally I’m most influenced by seeing something I hate, and then promising myself to never make something like that!”

Yeah, and in the process of making something it might suddenly occur to you that “oh no, this is not what I want to do, because I’m doing what this other thing is doing that I didn’t like” and a lot of that is just going to happen because different people trying to solve the same problems are going to hit upon the same solutions. When I find myself using a solution I already saw used by someone else, I just have to say, “Well, it works. It gets the idea across, but if I’m just going to do that, then why bother to be an artist?” The whole point of being an artist is to illustrate or convey an idea in an unexpected manner. I do spend days sometimes just agonizing over some tiny little detail which would be very easy to solve if I was willing to do something conventional.

There is something to be said to having something I call a bête-noire. Personally, in thinking about creating my own work, David Foster Wallace is commonly on my mind in a not entirely positive manner. If you were to ask me in general what I think about his writing, there is a lot of it which I think is aesthetically unpleasant or annoying and yet I can still sense the sincerity or the attempt to get to a place I am also interested in going. In reading one particular work of his, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, I can tell within that work the desire to get out of a certain kind of solipsism, which I think he ultimately fails to do. But, in his having that desire to escape it, I am motivated to come to some personal resolution regarding that issue in creating my own work or discussions on those topics. I think that probably happens more often than we initially think.

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As someone who is a proponent of a pure cinematic experience, it was interesting to see the progression of Æon Flux from the Liquid Television shorts (which are as purely cinematic as you can get), to the full length television show episodes, complete with dialogue. In discussing the evolution of the show, you expressed an initial weariness over the prospect of having to write dialogue for the shorts, in a way similar to what I like to derisively think of as “exposition time.” For example, one of the television shows I despised is the Tudors, for precisely this reason. It was so common for a character like Thomas Moore to come into a scene and say something like “Oh Henry, why are you so vexed?” with Henry replying “Oh Thomas, I’m upset that Pope Clement VII won’t annul my marriage to Catherine of Aragon, aunt to my rival Charles V, as she is not producing me an heir” blah, blah, blah. This is dialogue that would never be shared among these men as much as is it a ham-fisted attempt to educate an audience unfamiliar with the history and the politics of the time.

But isn’t that true of most television? With most television you could almost turn off the picture and just listen to the dialogue and understand everything that is happening.

Unfortunately this is quite common. But I think the best television does what you thought about when you were transitioning Æon Flux, which is when you treat dialogue as something which is also interpretable or something which can offer several layers of meaning, and is not pre-digested then it becomes something much more interesting.

You know, I ran into a situation where a lot of people would turn on the show, see people talking, and assumed everything was being explained though the dialogue…which it wasn’t. In a lot of cases they didn’t look beyond that. That was a little bit disappointing. I’m not sure that we were always successful. The episodes were really shorter than the amount of story that I was trying to cram into them. We ended up having to cut out a lot of material out which was in the scripts when we went to storyboards, just because there was too much of it, too much story to fit into 22 minute episodes.

I think I remember you saying that about “The Demiurge.”

“The Demiurge” in particular because that was the first script that we did, and I think I must have cut out half the story to get it to fit the running time. One of these days I’d like to remake that story because it was a good script, but really suffered a lot from the transition. I mean I like films with lots of dialogue, and dialogue can be used in different ways. I agree with you, I have very little patience with exposition dialogue, but I like David Mamet…but what’s interesting about him is that his films contain less and less dialogue as he makes more of them. Dialogue should be as mundane as possible, or it should appear to be as mundane as possible (in my mind). A perfect example of that would be a lot of the dialogue in 2001: A Space Odyssey. To me…I love the dialogue for example, where they are flying across the moon, and some guy says, “do you want the chicken or do you want the ham sandwich?” and it speaks volumes to the fact that, they are on the moon, they’ve come this far, but basically they are still monkeys. They still are still talking about preferring chicken to ham, and it is such a mundane bit of dialogue, but to me the implications of it are enormous.

That reminds me of a negative review I heard regarding 2001 from a fairly middle-brow critic which more or less claims the film isn’t a film because nothing is happening, or it is all just a shot of landscapes.

I wrote a kind of rebuttal to that type of thinking. I encounter that a lot too with viewers. It’s amazing to me how blind people can be who say that. Basically in that whole trip to the moon, in just a few minutes with very little dialogue, is the entire evolution of human civilization.

I always thought there was an obvious plot in 2001, and never thought it confusing or meaningless. I mean it was pretty obvious to me what the story was focused on communicating. So when people say “if it can mean anything it means nothing,” it surprises me when I feel the film’s meaning was very specific. Even the metaphorical meaning of the star child was perfectly understandable. It’s very strange how people respond in ways that are not just negative, but act as if you are doing something to insult them, like you slapped their mother or something. If you don’t have dialogue which is expository, or if you don’t have characters for the audience to root for, or if you ask your audience to put any amount of work into the viewing experience, it’s not just that they won’t put the work in they will be angry at you for making such a demand on them.

Yeah, and I actually have a good friend who argues with me all the time about this. He just accepts it as a given that films are an inferior medium for conveying ideas or stories than books. And I keep telling him that there isn’t anything inherent in the medium, it’s just the way people use it. And people are just used to seeing films that are like that. And I will agree most films don’t demand much thought or attention from the viewer, but just because the majority of commercial films are made that way doesn’t mean that it has anything to do with the medium itself. But I don’t know…my friend just refuses to see that.

I think that’s something our magazine likes to combat. We will pick certain fights with people who accept preconceived notions of categories in either literature or film. That’s part of the reason we did the Weird Fiction issue and why we will be doing an issue on the science fiction which came out of the 70’s. There is nothing inherently poor about genre fiction per se…it’s just a question of how you use it. Do you fetishize the elements of the genre or do you use the genre as a vehicle to express something substantial? I think what we encounter a lot, and what I generally collapse into the idea of middle-brow thinking, is something like saying “oh, this is an action film, I know what I’m getting, and it’s not going to be interesting.” Someone might say something like that after watching the first two minutes of the Æon Flux pilot, and yet they don’t watch the next two minutes which will subvert that preconceived notion. Actually, and this may be a tangent, you had the fortune of working at MTV during an ever so brief period when that network was willing to produce experimental or avant-garde animation of several filmmakers who do not follow these middle-brow notions. From your inside prospective, what was the series of fortunate events which allowed this to come into being?

Well, I was very much in that moment not only with Liquid Television, but also with Rugrats before that. You know Nickelodeon and MTV were both owned by Viacom. When Nickelodeon first appeared, and even the name nickelodeon harkens back to old retro film consumption, they would show old TV programs including old cartoons. Then they decided they wanted to create their own original programming and because they were cable, and cable was something new, their agenda or their mandate was to create cartoons that you couldn’t see on network TV. And when I was involved in the creation of Rugrats, a lot of people thought “why are these characters so ugly and everything so weird looking?” I mean it really was something pretty strange at the time. And those shows were a success, and MTV wanted to emulate that success by also producing programming that was uniquely MTV, that you couldn’t see anywhere else, so they idea was to showcase all these different styles of animation that you could only see on MTV.

Like a lot of decisions that get made either in filmmaking or in TV, most of it is not driven by anyone’s creative vision. It’s just who they happen to know and relationships that they have. At the time MTV was producing a lot of animated station IDs and a lot of them were being produced at Colossal Pictures, and they had these little 10 second animated logos for MTV. And so Colossal got the idea to make a half-hour show to sell these different animated shorts, and they already had this relationship with MTV and MTV thought that it was a good idea and wanted to produce it. MTV was really catering to people with short attention spans or kids who would just turn the channel on and leave it on and not really pay attention to it…like background noise like if you had the radio on. And so Liquid Television would have these little short segments that would be like 30 seconds long, or one minute or two minutes long, but there would always be something different happening on screen. I thought that would be a good way to slip in a lot of stuff I thought I wasn’t allowed to do in other venues. Initially they had a hard time understanding what Æon Flux was and what I was trying to do and why it belonged on Liquid Television. So I kind of had to pitch Æon Flux as a parody of action shows or action movies because everything on LiquidTV was a parody of something. It was a parody of different television genres…you know they had parodies of soap operas, of travelogues, of infomercials and commercials and so on. And so even though in my mind that wasn’t really what I wanted to do, I had to pitch it as a spoof of action movies, and they accepted it on those terms. And then you sneak in all the other stuff that you actually are really interested in putting into it.

The only reason why they were interested in continuing to do it was that it tested well with audiences. They asked their focus groups which of these segments they like and which they don’t like, and Æon Flux always tested very highly. One thing that was special about it was that it tested well with women and men. And at the time you have to remember, that when it was first run, there was nothing else like it. There was no Tomb Raider, there was no Resident Evil. The idea of having a female action hero running around with guns was something that was causing a lot of people to ask me “Why a woman? What was your agenda with making her a woman?” And those were half the questions people would ask me. People don’t blink an eye about it nowadays but at the time it was something pretty strange.

That is an interesting reaction, and sort of overlaps well with my own reaction at the time of the original airing on Liquid Television. I knew that a Liquid Television episode with Æon Flux in it was more enjoyable than one without it. I don’t want to say that it was the only segment that was worth watching, I remember Winter Steel being another interesting piece, plus a few others…so I’m not surprised about the good testing. And you are right about the female action lead now becoming banal, which is a development which may have been consciously or unconsciously influenced by Æon Flux. Also, the initial positive reaction being strong with both men and women is particularly illuminating to note. I was actually thinking about what the reaction might be looking back on it now, and I would have expected some people to dismiss Æon Flux by saying a woman in dominatrix gear is little more than a male fetishistic fantasy. To now know that the reaction was actually positive among both sexes undermines that expectation.

Well, that was something I agonized over as I was doing it. I thought “do I really want to go this way with the design?” and I actually did try some more realistic and practical costumes for her. But, there are times when I have to remind myself that I chose to work in animation for a reason. And one of those reasons was because you can get away with stuff that you never could in live action. And you have to take advantage of that, and seize if for what it is. Don’t run away from it!

Right, even the Aries ram hair is something they couldn’t do in the live action version, because they didn’t.

Nor would I want them to. It would look ridiculous.

Yeah, for sure. And a lot of these developments we have been talking about occurred during the initial Liquid Television shorts phase of the show. It sounds like the extension of the show into the full-length episodes phase occurred by virtue of the shorts having a wide enough audience. How much success did you have then negotiating into these episodes double and triple entendres, references to Gnosticism, references to Julian Jaynes’ The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, I even heard direct quotes from Saul Bellow in “The Purge” when Trevor Goodchild says “this is what happens when a great deal of intelligence is invested in ignorance, where the need for illusion is deep.”

Where is that line from? I didn’t write that dialogue, Eric Singer did.

It’s from Saul Bellow’s To Jerusalem and BackIt was interesting actually. I remembered that line from the show for a long time, and when I ultimately wound up going to the University of Chicago, I became well versed in both Saul Bellow and Philip Roth by being in that same air. And actually during that same period of time Æon Flux was re-released on DVD, and when I encountered that line again, I was doubly pleased to now know where the reference came from. I think that’s one of the many reasons the show stands up so well to repeat viewings.

Yeah there are some weird little references throughout the show. Like the episode “End Sinister” is obviously a reference to Bend Sinister and some people get them and some people don’t. A lot of times, I wasn’t necessarily thinking consciously of Gnosticism, I always liked the idea of Gnosticism more so than the actual doctrines that it promulgates. And with Æon being a Gnostic term, the demiurge just seemed to fit. But for the most part, MTV had no idea what they were getting. And we had to be very careful about not really being too frank about what it was that we were really up to, as long as they were allowing us to do the show. I had to make certain concessions along the way. For example, they really wanted some kind of voice over to explain things, and I really, really resisted the idea of Æon being the one who should give the voice over, but because they insisted, I made Trevor deliver the voice overs. And that makes perfect sense because Trevor is a politician and would be interested in putting his spin on things. Æon wouldn’t care what you think. It would be totally out of character for her to deliver any kind of voice over.

That’s how I would think about it. It was beneficial to make that change. Not only is it better for Trevor to deliver the voice overs from a functional perspective, it also allows his character to flourish in a way. Those voice over dialogues are hardly the kind of pure exposition we were just railing against, but are manifestations of his character and perspectives. Among the many ways you can interpret, Æon Flux, one is a parallel story looking to live a life of freedom. Æon does so by living a life of an anarchist, and Trevor does so though his technocratic totalitarianism (a freedom for himself), and in my mind those narrations helped service that reading for me.

Actually I would put it a little differently, and I will reference the movie here because the movie does exactly what I tried so hard not to do in so many ways. I’ll just mention that in the movie Æon does do a voice over (they just did not understand the character). In the movie, and in a lot of people’s minds, she was fighting for freedom, but she isn’t. She isn’t a freedom fighter. She is free already. She is an anarchist, and she is actually not fighting for a cause, she is just acting free. And what I noticed about most science fiction series or movies is that the main character is always some kind of rebel or fighting against some kind of oppression. There is always some kind of big brother, or evil empire, or some kind of machine dictatorship that they are trying to overthrow be it Terminator, Matrix, Star Wars or whatever. There is always an attempt to gain their freedom, and at the end of the story they gain their freedom and the story ends. But what happens after that? OK. You’ve gained your freedom, now what? So my idea was that Æon Flux would begin where those stories end. She’s gained her freedom, so what are the implications of that.

Right, Monica already exists, and there is no need to create it.

Right, and very often I’m very disappointed with how they handle that gaining of freedom. You look at something like Star Wars, and you think, well they’ll just replace one system of control with another through the Jedi order.

Right, the story of Star Wars that should have been told but was not was the fact that the religious Jedi order was already itself an authoritarian structure which was replaced by another.

So you got rid of the evil empire, but you’re still not free. Especially with the Matrix, where I was involved through the Animatrix. The end of the first movie has some bit of dialogue about a world without rules, and these people are trying to free themselves from the rule of the machines, but then they go to Zion and they have all these rules! They have the Zion council telling some guy he’s too young to go on this hovercraft and all this stuff. It’s just as bad if not worse. Actually, it’s worse because they are deluding themselves into thinking that they are somehow better off.

I might be veering off on a tangent, but it does bring up an interesting question. With regard to the Wachowski siblings, I can understand why Alan Moore would be hesitant to see V for Vendetta go through their adaptation process. Despite having some elements of the freedom fighter story, that book is more interested in seeing a fascist state exist within the presence of an anarchist figure and exploring that. The Wachowskis have always been the filmmakers of revolution in a certain vaguely post-modern Marxist sense, which you can take or leave, but ultimately turned the book into that kind of story. You wound up encountering them through The Animatrix, and had to construct your own creative vision within their particular universe and aesthetic. How were you able to negotiate the challenges of making personal working in an environment not of your own making and having to deal with their own particular “freedom-fighter” narrative?

Well you know this is a very common challenge. Most directors don’t write their own scripts. Most are given scripts and have to somehow make it their own, and a lot of scripts are adapted from books, and so you are adapting somebody else’s invention. So with the Animatrix it was no different from making a film in general. There is a lot to the idea that a film’s main point of interest is not the story. The story is very often, in my mind not the content of the film but another aspect of its form. Very often the story can be delivering one message, but the movie can be delivering a completely different message. I don’t like the word message but for lack of a better term I’ll use it.

For me a good example of this is A Clockwork Orange. To me, the story of A Clockwork Orange, in the book more so than the movie, and Burgess admits it to being a very didactic story, seemingly promotes the desirability of sacrificing some social harmony for the sake of individual freedom. And the film has come under a lot of criticism from some people for being morally reprehensible, like some kind of defense of amoral behavior. If that’s all that it was I would probably say the same thing, but the movie isn’t about that. The movie is the best example of a cinematic usage of the unreliable narrator. First of all, Alex is the one who is telling the story, so you really should not take anything that you SEE, not just what he says, but what you SEE at face value, and the filmmaker is in on it. Something that a lot of people notice when they are watching the movie is that Alex is the only sympathetic character. Everybody else looks like they’re crazy or some weirdo or some nutcase, until you realize that, well, wait a minute, Alex is the one telling the story! It’s like if you go to a prison and you interview a murderer or rapist, they will make all kinds of excuses for their behavior, and you should probably believe very little of it. What’s great about the movie of A Clockwork Orange is that the character of Alex is very charming in Malcolm MacDowell’s portrayal. In the book he is much less charming, and more obviously a monster. So the movie of A Clockwork Orange to me, which may or may not have been Kubrick’s intention, is about the process of freeing yourself from the influence of movies…because movies are the method for indoctrinating him. They show him movies, he is forced to watch movies. And his process of being conditioned through the repeated watching of movies mirrors the audience’s process of having their mind conditioned through watching movies. By the time we get to the end and Alex is claiming he is cured, I feel like we have lifted the veil and we can see through the conditioning effect of movies. In particular, the dubious moral message of the movie we have just watched. I haven’t heard or read anybody deliver that take on the movie and that’s what it means to me.

I think that’s an appropriate and reasoned reading of the film. The fact that a lot of people don’t get that is something I encounter fairly regularly in both reading and visual literacy. The difficulty in recognizing the implications of an unreliable narrator is one aspect of that. Another, which is very similar, is the concept of the “I” in a work of literature or film. Too often have I seen people presume that the presence of an “I” means that the author is being confessional rather realizing that this “I” is as much a persona as anything else. I get the feeling that a level of disassociation or distance relative to the book one reads or the film one views doesn’t really happen. As you point out in your comments, people are so connected to the work that they don’t really appreciate that level of unreliability. They are just too associated with the work. Perhaps that is a conditioning factor? Interestingly enough, the very next film Kubrick makes is Barry Lyndon, whose source text is also that of an unreliable narrator. Only this time Kubrick takes the film from first person to third person perspective, with the omniscient narrator telling the audience what will happen before it occurs. Incidentally, Kubrick may be my favorite artist in no small part because of what he is capable of doing with the film medium.

I’ve certainly learned the most about filmmaking from watching his films, and Barry Lyndon is one of my favorite films of his, but I find it impossible to watch now. Simply for that reason you described. I feel like I’m watching some kind of inexorable spiraling towards doom. And it just feels masochistic to have to sit through it. I remember the last time I tried to watch it I just couldn’t bear it because it was too…um…

Preordained…

Well it seemed almost sadistic. It is beautifully staged and lovingly crafted, but in a way it is a very lovingly mounted depiction of someone’s spiraling downward into nothingness. Well, I could say a lot about Barry Lyndon, but probably shouldn’t as it would be a long conversation in itself.

Right, it would be a conversation of two people enabling each other into greater and greater exploration of minutia [Laughs]

[Laughs] Maybe some other time.

Certainly understand, but I’m totally with you, and Barry Lyndon does remind me that my favorite Martin Scorsese film is The Age of Innocence which is also a very cruel film in its own right and feels like it is in dialogue with Barry Lyndon on a number of fronts.

Yeah, definitely yeah. I would say that Kubrick is probably my favorite filmmaker. My favorite movie is actually Playtime by Jacques Tati.

I’ve seen Playtime many times. Tati always had minimal dialogue in his films, but Playtime reaches the point where dialogue completely becomes soundscape.

Right yeah. Now that you mentioned Scorsese and The Age of Innocence, I’ve heard a lot of people and even Martin Scorsese himself talk about what motivates him, his Catholicism and guilt, but to me I don’t get that at all from his movies. His movies to me are all about solipsists. What is interesting in all of the films where Robert De Niro plays the main character is that the films never allow the main character to become aware of his own solipsism. He treats the world as if no other consciousness exists but his own – none of the gangster characters, or in Raging Bull, and especially in the King of Comedy. There is no acknowledgement that any other point of view can exist but his own. And what that means is that they live in worlds of their own creation. And what they are doing, especially with gangsters, is that they are molding the world to fit their own internal vision of it. And what happens in the DeCaprio films is that he comes to the realization that he is trapped within this world that he made for himself – Shutter Island, the Aviator, even the Gangs of New York. That subculture that he creates or that world he wants to enter into…he becomes a prisoner. The Departed is a perfect example of that. He takes on an invented persona and becomes a prisoner of it. He becomes aware of his own trapped condition, whereas the De Niro characters are also creating their own world, but never reach that level of awareness that there are other worlds outside themselves. Taxi Driver is another perfect example of that. Travis bends the world to fit his will or his vision of it.

Even if he has to create a self-destructive environment to do it. For example, when he takes the Cybil Shepherd character to the porno theater, she likes me but I don’t like me, so I will put her in a situation where she will respond to me as the piece of trash I know I am.

Yes, yes. But also in a way creating a self-fulfilling prophesy about carrying out an assassination, and then he does everything to prepare for that to happen. It didn’t have to happen but then because he made those preparations a version of that does end up happening. I think it does mirror the filmmaker’s process because that’s what an artist does. You have a vision of a fictional world and you try to bring it into physical reality and you are able to bend others in your environment towards it.

No I think that’s fair. And it’s interesting that we bring up these readings which, and I don’t want to make blanket statements, but a lot of general criticism seem to miss or overlook a lot of these points. In a way I was starting to think about how a lot of this information is communicated visually or through other filmic techniques like editing or what have you. And this goes back to the essay you wrote on the condition of visual literacy in addition to traditional senses of literacy*. Maybe our conversation has already foreshadowed your answer, but has the condition changed at all? Perhaps not?

In some ways it has gotten worse actually. I think that through Twitter, live blogging, and DVD commentaries, somehow you always need to put material into words. If you cannot explain things through words, it doesn’t count. I guess people encounter this attitude in school from their teachers, the idea that if you cannot put it into words it is either not real or not valid. You have to put it into words to have true content or meaning. And I think that that’s just…why? It’s debatable honestly, because obviously there is some truth to the fact that our thinking is enabled by our acquisition of language. It would be a very difficult experiment to make, but I guess some research has been done on it. But there are certain things you know inherently without having words for them. For example, I have a five-year-old kid. Even if he doesn’t know the meaning of the word “injustice,” he knows that if I am punishing him for something he didn’t do, then that’s not right. You just know that innately. You don’t have to have the concept taught to you, I believe. Maybe you do. But I do think that there are a lot of things like that that we can understand just through observation or direct experience. And I think a lot of what I try to do is tap into people’s potential to understand something without the filter of language. So I remember as a kid that I would look up into the night sky and feel this sense of cosmic consciousness. You just become aware of the vastness of space and your place in it, so having to put that into words? Cosmic consciousness may be the wrong phrase to use, but it is a state of awareness, and I think 2001 captures that awareness beautifully, more than any other movie ever made. That feeling of just staring up at the night sky and thinking about how you came to be here and what a miracle it is. Which I think is diminished by having to be captured in a few verbal symbols.

I’m with you very strongly on this. I’m actually reminded of something said by my favorite author Vladimir Nabokov. In an interview he said that he actually didn’t think in language as much as he though in imagery for the most part. It was amazing to hear him say that considering his verbal acumen in multiple languages. What’s interesting about that is that I’ve long agreed with that understanding of the situation. I’m quite leery of the sort of post-modern or post-structuralist influenced idea that all thought as such is a linguistic construction. In a way it’s true. If you are saying anything to yourself you using language, but I think there is a certain unspoken element to thought which does not fit language. This may be a thought which can soon become too big for our own britches, but it almost feels like, to your own point, you can innately comprehend things without language, but the older we get and the more we become conditioned by the use of language, the more limiting the signifier becomes in attempting to encapsulate the signified…and the language becomes something of a crutch.

Well here’s the thing. Language is a crucial tool for being able to understand and organize thought, but you cannot mistake the language for the thing it is supposed to represent, and a lot of people make the mistake of being trapped in the matrix, because language is a form of virtual reality. There used to be this radio call-in show that was hosted by a former lawyer, and this is the perfect example of thing I am talking about, this kind of legalistic thinking. His contention was that the concepts of “innocent” and “guilty” have no meaning outside of a verdict reached in a courtroom. So if you talk about a person committing an act, let’s say it’s murder, it’s meaningless to say that he is guilty of doing it outside of whatever verdict is reached, because that is the only meaning that word can have, guilty. And that is the case of somebody mistaking the label for the thing…because obviously either somebody did it or didn’t regardless of the verdict reached because there is some kind of underlying reality. Calling him guilty is a label that we have applied through whatever system of evaluation or assessment. But don’t mistake that for the underlying reality. And I think a lot of people make that mistake in a lot of different ways.

Going back to the Matrix, that was what the Matrix was all about. It wasn’t about man vs. machine. It was about this idea of not mistaking the measurement for the actual thing. It’s a convenience we have allowed ourselves: law, the economy, money, and government. These are all artificial structures that are supposedly our tools, but then we become slaves to them. The movie was supposed to be saying “don’t be a slave to that.” But in the subsequent movies, unfortunately, they made it a story literally about man vs. machines…and about a big war. They lost the metaphor. Who cares about machines?

Right, the man vs. machine was a useful construct for the moral to tell, but then the construct became the subject.

Yeah, and that speaks to a broader issue. It’s funny because when I met the Wachowskis they were reading back to me something that I had written, which was that “filmmakers often make the mistake of believing too much in their own fictions.” They responded “Ahh! You are talking about the matrix!” And I thought maybe they get it, but when I saw the second movie I thought, no you don’t get it. YOU believe too much in your own fiction. You believe too much in your own mythology. I actually love Speed Racer more than The Matrix, I think it’s a brilliant film.

What’s interesting about it, and something that is particularly important to your work, and maybe important to art in general but some people focus on it more than others, is the form of the art itself. It’s not just the story or the fiction that is important, it is the form in which you choose to depict it.

That actually raises a question I have for you. I noticed that in your journal you use the term Modernism a lot, and I know that that is a word a lot of people define in different ways. And that’s the issue that you are raising, the relationship between form and content…which is how I define it. So I’d like to ask you what is it that determines whether or not you call something modernist or not?

That is a difficult question. You can be coy or churlish about it and tie the identification of “Modern” work to a particular historic moment in time…but I don’t entirely think that is true. I more or less think of it in terms of the manner in which the artist or the audience responds to the work and it is related to the form. I remember Michael Mann was doing an interview on the film Thief, and in that interview he considered Thief a modernist film largely because he thought the film in its form and the manner in which it chose to tell the story was completely focused on communicating a singular vision of the world or the condition of live even above and beyond the simple level of the narrative. I would have a definition of modernism along those lines, focusing on the manner in which the artist uses the tools at hand. In contrast to that, I would say that post-modernism, to put it negatively has more of a fetishistic quality with regard to the tool as such, with attention to surface, or the medium being the message etc. There is an obsession with certain things at the cost of having anything like an artistic point of view.

Well, I just taught a class where I was discussing the issue. For a long time I’ve had my own way of defining these terms, and for some reason I haven’t heard them stated the way I think of them. Obviously I’m a visual artist. And I know that modernist literature is something I may not be as familiar with in the way I am familiar with painting and sculpture. I always think of modernism, classicism, primitivism, and post-modernism in terms of the relationship between form and content. You almost cannot define modernism without first knowing what classicism is. Classicism to me, applied to painting, is that form is in the service of content. In classicist painting you’re creating an illusion and the artist is trying to be as invisible as possible. Whenever content is being depicted in the painting, but perhaps also in the novel I’d say, is that you are upholding whatever admirable values, whether it is heroism, piety, or whatever, within the painting or the narrative, and the artist doesn’t really want to be noticed in that appreciation. So form is in service of content. In modernism, form is content. The point of looking at a modernist painting is no longer in the subject but the artist’s process of creating it. So the brush strokes become visible, you notice the act of painting more than whatever subject the painting depicts. So you can paint haystacks or whatever. The subject is really irrelevant. It’s really the artist. Your focus is on the artist and not the fiction. To me, in post-modernism, form and content are at odds. There is some sort of opposition or tension between form and content.

I was thinking about this a lot the past couple of days. Towards the end of classicism, the break came when photography appeared because paintings lost their need to have any verisimilitude towards reality. Around the same time, classical painting was becoming more florid, and romanticized, and phony…it became more escapist for lack of a better word. And a lot of it felt like it was being employed for the elevation of kitsch, again for lack of a better word. And you’re depicting worlds that are completely unreal, like scenes from mythology, or even historical events which were highly romanticized, or religious scenes. So it became more and more disconnected from experience and from reality, and I think that’s what a lot of modernist movement was trying to correct in that sense, was to become more real or more in touch with reality. But the thing is, any painting, no matter how fanciful it is contains something that is real – and that is the artist’s process. The artist’s process of creating a painting is fact, no matter how fictional the events depicted in it are. And that is interesting in the sense that, when you look at a painting, your interest is more in what the artist’s real-life process was in thinking about how he was going to best portray this fictional thing. And so the modernist painters really were making that the subject of their art – the fact that there is this real-life person, not a fictional person that is depicted in the picture, but a real life artists which is struggling or going through a creative process of trying to record his thoughts or feelings on canvas or whatever medium. And I think the same applies to writing as well. The focus is no longer on the fictional characters but on the writer. And that’s why I say the form becomes the content. The form is the content at that point.

And the same applies to animation, which is why I bring it up in my class. Classical animation is very often misunderstood as meaning hand-drawn animation. And people often make the mistake of saying there is traditional/classical animation and there is computer animation, but that is a very meaningless distinction. You can use digital animation in a classical mode of representation or you can use it in a modernist mode of representation. It has nothing to do with the tools you use. It has to do with the mode of representation that you are using. And I would point to a lot of current animation, especially TV animation, as being post-modern, because it’s all about irony. It’s all about taking some kind of recognizable genre imagery and repurposing it. And that’s what post-modern painting does. I’m less familiar with the works of post-modern literature as I haven’t been up on it, but I would certainly say William Burroughs and David Foster Wallace, and probably starting with James Joyce actually…Joyce feels more post-modern than modern.

Yeah…the difficulty in demarcating is always problematic, especially on the literary side (and probably on the visual side as well). I think the distinction between modern and post-modernism is more difficult than classicism and modernism, or romanticism and modernism. I think you articulate things pretty closely to how I think of things as well. I think it is the case in literature that author intentionality or authorial presence takes on a more significant role in modernism than it had hitherto done. And I think there is a certain element of historical events going on which help inform how that takes shape. So modernism comes about in an age of photography, like you said. And it also comes about in an age of industrial capitalism where the notion of historical continuity is becoming increasingly difficult. The world becomes increasingly fractured by gigantic wars or the wholesale repurposing of land…and this forces a lot of modernist authors to confront this contemporary setting. I think this is where we also get the double-edged meaning of “modernism.” The confrontation with “the new” becomes central. Don’t get me wrong, I think all artists are in some sense responding to their times, but the particular historical moment of modernism forces authors to confront this fractured, new world they find themselves in. So T. S. Eliot is a prime example of this. I saw an excellent lecture on The Waste Land, which prefaces the description of the poem by referencing these series of stain glass windows at the University of Toronto. Apparently these stained glass windows were composed of the shattered fragments of stain glass windows from the battlefields of World War I. The fragments we gathered and reassembled back in Toronto. That lecturer make the case that in a way, Eliot is trying to accomplish something similar in The Waste Land. He is gathering up the shattered fragments of classical literature and religion, both from the west and from the east, and attempting to reassemble them in the aftermath of World War I and the 1920s and so on. So in a way that authorial intentionality is at the service of an attempt to reconstruct meaning in a world which in and of itself could offer less and less meaning. And eventually, when you get to post-modernism, there is an anxiety even with that exercise. So the question of irony comes up, and the difficulty of taking order seriously is a manifestation of that.

I guess what I would say about post-modernism, is that I think that people did get tired of modernism, and again I feel like it is very clearly visible if you look at modernist paintings. They became more and more minimal and in a way farther and father removed of any sense of aesthetic pleasure or visceral pleasure. They just became so abstract. And I think that people missed some of the aesthetic pleasures that you could get from classicism, but you can never really go back to being a classical artist once you have gone through modernism. The way I look at a lot of post-modernist work is that they are going to go back to figurative representation but with the acknowledgement that it is all a ruse or a trick, because you are creating an illusion. In the classical mindset, you don’t want to give away the game that you are performing an illusion or a trick. You just want it to be taken at face value. But in post-modernism, there is an attempt to reclaim a lot of the methods of classicism in terms of technique, but with the acknowledgement that that is what you are doing. That it is a trick.

Right, and I’m glad you articulated it that way, because in fact that is how we see our particular take on modernism vis-à-vis our magazine. For lack of a better term, and all of the editors have some trouble with the neologism, “neo-modernism” is a realization that, just as how the post-modernists want to evoke the techniques of classicism but cannot directly do so in the presence of modernism, we too want to evoke the techniques of modernism but with the acknowledgement that post-modernism has happened. Our response to the post-modern isn’t anger with it as such, as much as a desire to move past the ever-presence of irony, which is so common that it is devoid of meaning.

Right, irony gets tiresome too.

  *          *          *

I wanted to circle back onto this notion of the (false?) dichotomy between escapism and didacticism that we have been hinting at throughout much of the conversation. In our discussion I don’t think we have made the case for the superiority of either one of those notions, either in the function or the consumption of the arts. So I guess, why are we left with the mindset that this is the true dichotomy?

You know, you are asking the wrong person, because I have no idea. I am baffled by why people can only see those two possibilities. I mean why can there not be a third, a fourth, or a fifth. If that’s what you are asking me I don’t know [Laughs]. I think people have a tendency to set up dichotomies in order to make sense of things. Personally, I don’t think that the function of art is to do either one of those things. I don’t think that art is escapism or a means of teaching moral lessons…it can be used for those purposes. I guess my way of answering that is to say that the essential function of art is for us to exercise our faculty for creating meaning. And that may sound esoteric but it’s not. It is the most basic thing that we do as humans. It’s what makes us human. We take the raw experience of life, and we detect meaning, we detect patterns in it. We draw conclusions which answer the question “what did this event mean?”

So for example, you see it every day in the news. Some event happens overseas or in the economy with banks, and you’ll have all sorts of people coming on TV trying to spin it saying “this means we have to go to war,” or “this means we have to restrict banks.” And then you’ll have somebody else from the other side of the political spectrum come on and say “no this means we have to do the exact opposite.” And they are all trying to tell you what it means. I think that it is an inevitable need that people have to read meaning into events.

What any work of art does, to me, is that it presents you with an experience, which you should approach as you would approach any kind of event which happens to you in life. I shouldn’t say “you should,” but ideally what an artist wants his audience to do is to appreciate the work because it is technically proficient enough (and this is an important point because I think craft is important, and makes an artist different from somebody who is not an artist or who doesn’t have any skill as an artist) that the audience, or the viewer, or the reader, will be invited to, or have his mind stimulated to find meaning in it…and that’s all it is. The viewer will find his own meaning in it. Not to second guess the audience’s intention. To me it’s an exercise that’s useful but really it is secondary.

It’s funny because the way I like to think about it relates to the difficulty of language. I think one phenomenon I respond to very deeply is the artist who can, in his art, and without the limitations of just writing an essay saying “I think the world is X, Y, Z” construct something which can be interpreted, and in it’s lack of direct explanation can offer us the opportunity explore its meaning in profound and exciting ways. In fact, it is a shame when artists of that caliber enter into something like the political space, and in a direct and blunt fashion say something trite and devoid of interesting content. Their communication loses the magic of their art. So perhaps this false dichotomy of escapism and didacticism is an attempt to encapsulate in language an easy way of vocalizing or understanding something which shouldn’t be. I mean we should definitely think about art, we should talk about it, we should explore potential meaning, but the art itself, ideally, shouldn’t be so easily encapsulated.

 The meaning of good art, by its nature is elusive. I think that is why people need to latch onto “what is it for?” “what is it trying to tell me?” and escapism and didacticism are the most ready-to-hand answers for that question. It’s easy to understand “oh, this is trying to teach me, this” like “racism is bad” or whatever message they think. And they can walk away feeling satisfied that they now know the answer. But good art really leaves you with the feeling of uncertainty, or it should. And I think that people are uncomfortable with that. So that’s why I think they latch on to that dichotomy.

Tying this all back to the theme of this issue, “what is avant-garde art,” I tend to focus on the idea that the avant-garde is simply an articulation of an attempt to either depict something new or to use the form in a new way or create a form which is itself new…either for the act of consciousness expansion or getting someone to think in a new way. The world “new” always seems to come to mind vis-à-vis the avant-garde. And so in the aftermath of all of what we said, and given where we are at now, be it historically, politically, economically, or artistically, however you want to take it, is there still a place for that?

I hope this doesn’t sound like a cop-out to you, but I honestly don’t think about it. And I have never thought of what I do as being avant-garde or needing to be avant-garde. That’s a question for critics and historians. An artist just needs to be driven by the things that drive them to be creative. I’m often very leery of work that presents itself as being some kind of avant-garde statement or some kind of example of the avant-garde. If something is self-aware, and if an artist is presenting his own work as a work of avant-garde, then to me it loses some authenticity. I think that the best art is art that you don’t consciously consume as art. It’s just woven into your life and into culture. That’s why I like working in mass media. I don’t want to have my work exhibited in an art museum, and I don’t want my films just shown in special film festivals for animation aficionados. I’m interested in my work being seen everyday in television, that it is able to justify itself commercially in the marketplace. The fact that people are able to glean something out of it that is artistic, that it touches those nerves, is more valuable because it is allowed to happen naturally, and maybe subconsciously.

So, to respond to your initial worry, I do not think that answer is a cop-out. The issue asks the question “what is the avant-garde?” in the hopes of preserving that ambivalence or the ambiguity over the condition of the idea. In fact posing the question allows us to question the idea of whether or not the term has any meaning. And I think the way you have articulated it is a very interesting way to do so. And I sympathize with it. And I would agree, if you are going into the process of making some work of art, and claiming it as avant-garde, invariably it will not be, because you are already preconceiving of it as something which is almost contradictory to the idea of attempting to develop something new. All of that makes a large amount of sense to me. But it also says to me that, if there is a role for the critic, it should not be just to decide, “this is good and that is not.” It should involve being able to recognize when something new, or something unexpected happens, and to varying degrees of success articulate why that is the case.

Yeah, good criticism, which is rare, definitely has value, and I think it can be a motivating factor for an artist too. But I hate going into an art museum and seeing people walk around a gallery show with an audio guide glued to their ear with someone explaining to them what they are looking at. That’s the last thing an artist should want, having the meaning of their work filtered through some kind of art critic telling people what to look for. I’m sure that when Van Gogh painted his paintings, he would be horrified to think that his paintings are being seen that way. A painter just wants to paint something and to elicit a spontaneous reaction. Hopefully you feel like your work is going to move somebody on its own terms, but people go in with the expectation that they are not going to appreciate it unless they get it and it really paralyzes your ability to just respond spontaneously to something, genuinely and personally.

So I know we’ve gone on for quite a long time, but I wanted you to have the final departing words should you have anything left.

I think we covered everything [Laughs]. I don’t know if I have anything to add really at this point.

* Peter Chung has written about “The State of Visual Narrative In Film And Comics” which you can read here.

Writer-Designer-Director Peter Chung is a world renowned Korean-American animated filmmaker with 30 years of experience in the Hollywood animation industry.  Since completing his studies at CalArts in 1981, he has worked on projects for Disney, Bakshi, Warner Brothers, Universal, Marvel, Nickelodeon and MTV.  In 1990, he created the first late-night animated series for adults, Æon Flux.  His distinctive style of visual storytelling can be seen in The Animatrix, The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury and Tomb Raider Revisioned.  In 2010, he directed Cartoon Network’s first original CG feature Firebreather, for which he won the Emmy award for individual achievement in character design.  Chung has directed commercials for Levi’s, Pepsi, Nike, AT&T, Honda, Jaguar and Rally’s.

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One thought on “Aesthetics in Flux: A Conversation with Peter Chung

  1. Pingback: Peter Chung Interview with Ash Thorp - Thinking Animation

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